Water puppets survive only in Vietnam. Presentations are given by professional puppeteers (Vietnam National Puppetry Theatre, Nhà Hát Múa Rối Quốc Gia Việt Nam, and Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, Nhà Hát Múa Rối Thăng Long) based in Hanoi, who tour internationally. These companies employ men and women who are well trained in national art academies, joined by top musicians.
These puppeteers manipulate large (50 centimetres or more), finely sculpted figures using bamboo poles or track mechanisms. Manipulators, waist-deep in the pool’s water, hide behind a temple-like façade covered with a bamboo screen in their staging house. They enact a series of interludes that distil mythology and humorous scenes of village life to create a national representation. Their performance extends elements from the rich tradition of phuong, secret societies of village puppeteers who cultivated this art in the Red River Delta to celebrate temple and village festivals.
In the 1980s, folklorist Nguyen Huy Hong noted that eight villages had active troupes that continued the phuong arts as they were handed down from earlier periods. The art may have originated in South East Asia’s wet rice society or have come to Vietnam from China where the earliest records of water puppetry are found. Today, however, it is clear that international artists are learning from the Vietnamese model, such as the Carter Family Marionettes in Seattle (USA) and Theodora Skipitares of New York.
Chinese literature attests to water puppets as an old art, shui kailei si (shui, water; kailei, puppet; si, play). The technique of early performances in China is not clear, but some commentators believe that the figures at the time of Emperor Yangdi (605-617) were mechanized water puppets. A description from around 1119 tells of puppeteers rowed in a boat, presenting fishermen pulling catch out of the water and manipulating figures playing ball or dancing to music. Although the technique of manipulation is not directly described, it is clear that the puppets in the water were moved from a distance with the mechanism of manipulation below the surface.
Another description, from 1640, discusses a special pool, part of which was separated by a silk curtain that masked puppet players from spectators. From behind the curtain wooden figures would emerge; one could see the torso above the surface. Beneath the surface, however, the puppet was merely a flat piece of wood the end of which was joined/bound to a horizontal bamboo rod, which the puppeteer from behind the screen would manoeuvre. The puppets, representing characters from famous literary works, were about 60 centimetres in height, each covered with heavy lacquer and colourfully painted. Since the 18th century, there has been no mention of the water puppets in Chinese sources.
It seems water puppetry has been continuously found in Vietnam, where it is called mua roi nuoc (mua, dance; roi, puppet; nuoc, water). The earliest mention is an 1121 CE inscription from the Doi Pagoda in Ha Nam province describing an event for King Ly Nhan Tong (Lý Nhân Tông, 1066-1127) at his birthday celebration, which included a swimming tortoise and fairy dancers, scenes that remind us of figures seen today.
A water puppet stage from the period of the Later Le Dynasty (1533-1708) is still found in Long Tri Lake facing the Thay Pagoda (Thai Binh Province). There performances, as part of the annual temple festival, continue today.
Few older puppets have survived in the tropical climate, but Keo Pagoda and village troupes in Thai Binh have some older figures from the late 19th or early 20th centuries, 30-40 centimetres tall with mechanisms to move their arms.
Touring pools were introduced in the l930s, but the political instability from the l940s (World War II) through the end of the South East Asian War (1975) put the tradition at risk. However, village performers, trained in the phuong societies of the past, cooperated in the l970s to share with urban professional puppeteers their secrets, thus creating the contemporary art. Entering the second decade of the 21st century, puppeteers still manipulate the colourful wooden lacquered figures by the use of long bamboo sticks hidden under the murky water.
Music in contemporary performances is drawn from cheo and the folk repertoire. Instruments include a 16-string zither (dan tranh), a two stringed violin (dan nhi), flute (sai), a moon lute (dan nguyet), drums (trong), and clappers. The hour-long performance is a series of items (of one to seven minutes). First the flags marking the stage space appear. Next Teu, the clown who has descended from heaven, introduces the show. Nostalgic and playful scenes of village life follow. The climax is often a battle scene in which Chinese marauders attack, threatening Viet independence. The enemy is subdued. Next a boat scene may show the legendary hero Le Loi returning the sword that won independence to the golden tortoise (a scene which supposedly took place on Hanoi’s “Lake of the Returned Sword” where a major water puppet theatre stands at present). Fairies and the four sacred animals (lion, tortoise, dragon, and phoenix) provide the denouement with their promise of prosperity. The structure echoes themes of recent Vietnamese history, moving from an agrarian idyll to a successful war of independence.
Water puppetry is one of the world’s most unique forms of direct manipulation technique. The performance area is in the central area of the pool which may measure 15 metres in length and 10 metres wide with audiences on three sides. The movable pool used in international performances is 30 metres square.
A richly decorated “pagoda” forms the back of the set and shelters the manipulators, orchestra, announcer, singers, and directors, up to fifteen people or so. This rectangular structure in the form of a temple has roofing of bamboo or wood on a structure which may be of brick. Traditionally, inside there are three distinct spaces. The central space (buong tro) is reserved for the manipulators who are in water up to their waists. They are hidden from the public by a suspended screen that goes down to the water level. Made of fine strips of bamboo and providing a clear view, this allows the operators to make the entrances and exits of the characters and to see as they manage the manipulation of their puppets. To each side there is a dais above the water, one given to the musicians and the other to the director. These platforms, hidden from public view, can also be placed at the back part of the buong tro.
The puppets are of wood that is relatively light and painted in vivid colours with paint from plant sources or a resin base. They are mostly carved out of a single piece of wood. The characters are mounted on a submerged pedestal, which at the same time serves as a counterweight and float, maintaining the equilibrium and hidden beneath the water. The puppets measure perhaps 50 centimetres in height, but some are as large as 1 metre. If it is a composite group-puppet, the individual figures may be smaller. The simplest puppets are manipulated with a horizontal bamboo pole 3 or 4 metres long, firmly attached to the submerged pedestal of the puppet. Certain parts of a puppet may move, as is the case for the arms of Teu, the chief clown, which lift: strings (wire, linen, silk coated with wax, or currently plastic) pass through the interior of the body, into the pedestal, then through the bamboo pole, and on to the hand of the manipulator. Sometimes multiple bamboo horizontal poles are used to manipulate a single figure displayed as a rod puppet. This is the case for the dancers who do not have the pedestal or legs, but a dress of thin fabric, and a vertical rod is fixed to the extreme end of the principal pole to animate the figure. Finally, to give more mobility to animals which can move their bodies freely in water, there is no fixed socket for the pole to enter, but again a vertical fixture that permits the bamboo pole to move freely. This rod has a sort of rudder installed in its back. The dragons spit fire or water. Several figures, which carry offerings (bouquets, delicacies, rice wine, and betel) to notable people, are sometimes attached to a cable loop mounted with the horizontal pulleys beneath, which permits their movement, coming and going, as on a fixed path.
The scenes of fights, naval battles, dances, parades, etc., require a complex technique which is not done by poles but fixed cable lines between posts driven in the bottom of the water (for the route) and strings attached to the moving part of the figure (allowing movement). These strings, each with its particular function, are together on a sort of keyboard lever-operated mechanism inside the buong tro, accessible to the puppeteers.
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